Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Never Explain The Impossible (If Doing So Serves No Purpose)

How many times have you been reading a fantasy or sci-fi novel, and found your interest ebbing away as the author goes on for page after page describing the mechanism by which their magic works? You know, like when Michael Chrichton dedicated page space to explaining the particular mechanism of time travel in Timeline, not in dialogue or as part of showing off how smart a character was, but as an aside to the audience told by the narrator?

Well, if you haven't read the book, I'd hold up that decision as the exact wrong way to make the impossible aspect of a story feel real. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks who feel that by laying out an entire schematic, and proving they've thought through exactly how everything from summoning spells to warp drives could work, that it will win them points with the audience.

The Dungeon Master has spoken.
You won't get brownie points. Because no one is here to look at the pretty scenery.

Acceptance Justifies The Impossible

First, let's talk about how the author needs to justify the impossible in their story. Whether it's aliens, ancient sorcerers, fire-breathing dragons, time travel, or anything else, there's a knee-jerk need in some authors to lecture about all the details so the audience can cram every bit of knowledge about these things into their heads. That doesn't make the impossible elements more interesting, though. If anything, treating them like the subject of an academic lecture can make them seem boring.

Because no one wants to be force fed information.

Instead, treat these impossible elements as matter-of-fact. If you state that something is real, then the audience has to accept that reality. That's the contract you've made with them. So be confident in your assertions about what elements do exist. If your protagonists sees a spell being cast, describe the ritual, and its effects. If they see a ship winking out into hyper space, or someone firing a laser rifle, don't pause the story to explain the mechanics of these occurrences. You're pile-driving your own pacing, and worse, taking something exciting and fun, and boring your readers with it.

So then the ion streams are fed into the polarizing chamber, which reverses their flow, leading to...
There is one exception to this advice; when you are using this explanation to make a point, or to show us something about a character.

As an example, take your sci-fi space marine. He's gruff, unpersonable, and extremely dangerous. He also fights in a suit of powered armor, naturally. If you have a scene where he's stripping, cleaning, and re-assembling his gear with a secondary character, it's all right to have him narrate the function of the tech he's inspecting. Not because you're trying to convince the audience that you consulted an engineer, and these combat suits are plausible. Rather, it's because you're showing us that the marine not only knows how to care for the gear, but has the technical understanding to explain it to someone else. Additionally, this scene could act as a way for the second character to get some insight below his gruff exterior. Whether it's a bonding moment with a younger character (sort of like a dad showing their kid how to do car maintenance), or finding common ground with a technician or engineer who isn't a fighter, the explanation is not the point of the scene; it's the story and character development it facilitates.

As an alternative example, take the character who has to walk us through a scenario in order to explain an important plot point. For example, a wizard is found dead inside a magic circle. The runes should have prevented any outside force from entering, so the assumption is he killed himself. However, careful examination of the circle reveals the materials it's made of wouldn't achieve that result. By dropping the little bit of knowledge that silver is meant to keep things in, not to keep them out, what was a suicide has suddenly become an imprisonment, and potentially murder. In this scenario the explanation of the intricacies of summoning and protective magics is not meant to intrigue your audience all by itself; it's meant to show that your protagonist is learned in the ways of magic, and to point out that the plot is deeper than we thought it was a moment ago.

If You Don't Need The Explanation, Don't Give It

Everything in your book is meant to serve a purpose. If you're cramming in extraneous detail that does no one any good, you're wasting both time and reader attention. So, unless it serves a greater purpose, we don't need to understand how your faster-than-light travel works, what altered physics allows the sorcerer to breathe fire, or how dragons fly. Simply tell us that these things happen, and get on with the story.

Remember, I said in Your Fantasy Novel Probably Sucks, And Professor Awesome's University Explains Why, no one falls in love with the set dressing. We're here to see the play.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing entry. If you liked it, consider following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to get all my regular updates. Lastly, if you want to help me keep this blog going, consider stopping by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron! As little as $1 a month goes a long way, and it gets you a free book or two as a thank you.


  1. Excellent post. Gene Roddenberry expressly said this about the original Star Trek series. He said there was no need for an explanation as to how phasers worked. They just did and the audience was expected to suspend their disbelief. It worked out just fine, though in later series they often felt the need to explain things. And you're right; no one really cares why the warp drive works.

    1. Except many people these days are curious about background and mechanics of things.

  2. On the other hand, the entire purpose of Robert Forward's novels frequently ARE the explanation of the tech involved

  3. Flight of the Dragonfly being case in point.